Five Ways Parents Ruin Teachable Moments
Deep into the heart of summer when back-to-school season hasn't yet entered the radar, parents still have lots of opportunities to keep the minds of their little ones sharp, curious and learning. In the midst of all the sun-filled fun, there are plenty of ways to teach valuable lessons about life and God, but it isn't always easy.
No matter what size a family is – one parent and one child, or both parents and a half dozen kids – outings and vacations of any kind have the potential to tax everyone's patience, and often the best intentions can get twisted up in a cold, wet puddle of the day's muck.
Here are five ways to avoid common fumbles in the teachable moments of time together:
Talk about building character
You can pretty much guarantee that if you tell your child how an experience is building his or her character, you will ruin a teachable moment. Just ask Calvin's dad. One of the most amusing and painfully true themes of the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip by Bill Watterson is that of Calvin's dad sabotaging a character-shaping moment by calling it a character-shaping moment.
What's more, trying to convince a child that a certain activity is good for their character could have the unintended consequence of making the parent the object lesson in a child's eyes, because the parent often lacks the quality he is hoping to develop in his child.
Teach in the middle of a moment
Nothing dampens the moment or the spirit of adventure more than being alongside a stickler for technical details. When a small child is trying something for the first time, such as building a sand castle or climbing a play structure, they are experimenting. Unless they ask for help, let them learn the laws of tides and gravity within the safety of your purview of course.
Being instructed with a heavy hand in the midst of any activity makes it feel like work. Sure, it's important to teach a child how to hold the putter at the putt-putt golf course. But a child's thrill of personal discovery is more important than producing a champ or even sinking a legal putt.
Point out the obvious
Parents are notorious for pointing out the obvious at inopportune or unnecessary times. Comedian Tim Hawkins calls it "giving good advice too late." He performs a hilarious routine about how his mother would shout, "Careful!", after he conked his head. In another routine, he pokes fun at her advice that implies he doesn't have a brain in that head, like reminding him to eat when he gets hungry.
My own daughter, now 11, has long interrupted this parental proclivity of mine with, "I know mom!" And I know she's right because I was right when I said the same thing to my own mother. How annoying.
Interrupt a beautiful silence
Most parents would agree that experiences often just speak for themselves. No words at all are needed. Harnessing the propensity to speak has been a serious spiritual discipline since forever. It's true that words aptly chosen are silver, while silence is golden. We could all benefit from savoring, rather than speaking about, a truth of life revealed in the moment.
Say too much
Even when words are obviously necessary, all too often the tendency is to say too much. It's called "beating a dead horse." Even if that horse happens to be a happy occasion, almost always it's better to say less than more because let's face it: More words mean more opportunities to say the wrong thing.
Have you ever noticed how Jesus, the one human in all of humankind who knew everything, actually said comparatively little, according to the Bible record? When I study the Master Character Builder, I see in Jesus the fine art of saying plenty with just enough words and no more.
Almost always the Gospel author notes the response of Jesus' listeners. They are often teed off because Jesus hit his target all too effectively. Other times they beg him to stay to teach more. Still other times they are silent.
With Jesus' way, we witness what can happen when all the parental pitfalls of teachable moments can be avoided at once, as all of their positive counterpoints—good timing, apt words, silence, reflection, and restraint—are displayed with epic effectiveness.